UPDATED: March 9, 2018 at 2:03 a.m.
Tami A. Christopher calls me on the phone because she lives all the way in Connecticut.
She’s a Harvard graduate student earning her Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.). She’s also a single mom to two kids, now 10 and 13.
Christopher initially lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the Harvard-owned Holden Green complex. It was a 15-minute walk from HGSE.
“I absolutely loved it,” she says. “I would have preferred to stay there, to be quite honest. It would have been better for my educational experience, and I did want my kids to have an ability to experience life in Cambridge and the schools in Cambridge.”
Christopher, though, was undergoing a custody case at the time. “I needed to get a two-bedroom apartment to have the best chance of getting the kids to stay with me permanently,” she says. “But my cost would have jumped from $1,695 a month to a minimum of $2,200 a month, and I just couldn’t swing that.”
Ultimately, Christopher had no choice but to move back to her home in Meriden, Conn. The decision actually ended up saving her money. She laughs that “it’s actually costing me less to live in Connecticut with an 1,800-square foot house with a yard and parking than it was to live a 15 minute walk away.”
Christopher schedules her courses so that she only has to drive to campus two or three days per week. The commute is about two hours each way. She uses the time to listen to podcasts or catch up on phone calls.
“I do miss out on certain parts of my program,” she says. “I don’t drive two hours for the various workshops or presentations that are offered.”
While Christopher’s particular situation is somewhat unusual, her concerns about housing affordability are not. According to Zumper, a real estate site, Cambridge rent prices for a one or two bedroom apartments are the most expensive in the Boston area.
Some of Harvard’s graduate students, like Christopher, come to campus with families of their own. Others arrive unmarried and straight out of college. Regardless, because of the high prices of Cambridge housing, graduate students are often forced to live in uncertain territory during their multi-year stints at Harvard—moving frequently, living with many roommates, or commuting long distances to campus.
This unconventional lifestyle reflects what some call the precariousness of being a graduate student. As evident in the public debates over unionization, graduate students are difficult to classify. They’re somewhere between working adult professionals and developing scholars: both paid employees for and pupils of the University. The occupation exists in an undefined space.
Jack M. Nicoludis, a chemistry graduate student living in Somerville and a Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers organizer, recently looked at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences website to figure out the cost of living in the area. He found that Harvard’s estimated living expenses for a single student in an off-campus apartment totaled to $2,865 per month.
“As a graduate student in the sciences, I’m making about $2,600 a month after taxes. That’s about $265 a month that, according to the university’s calculations, I shouldn’t be able to afford,” he says. “Where does the university expect that money to come from?”
In an emailed statement, Ann P. Hall, the Director of Communications for GSAS, wrote that “the GSAS Office of Residential Life manages four residence halls, which provide affordable, on-campus housing for graduate students.”
The housing rule of thumb dictates that people should spend a third of their income on rent. That percentage is often far higher for Harvard graduate students. Kate M. Franz, a graduate of Harvard Medical School who lived in Brookline and Boston, estimates that about 40 to 50 percent of her stipend went to rent.
“It’s definitely a seller’s market,” Nicoludis says. “Because there’s so many students, the schedule is set up to have 80 percent of the leases start Sept. 1. So it’s very competitive for Sept. 1 rents. We signed our lease in May, because you have to look so early to find places since they’re gone by the middle of the summer.”
Starting the house hunt that far in advance poses a challenge for graduate students who arrive from out of state. If students can’t secure housing before the summer, they might be left in the dust in a market that operates around the academic calendar.
Anna Ivanova, a third-year Ph.D. student, moved from Moscow to Boston with her husband in August 2015. They found themselves in an unexpected bind. “We had this feeling that everyone’s already moving, renting a place,” Ivanova says. “All the apartments were booked.”
Ultimately, Ivanova and her husband found housing in Fenway “at the very last minute.” Though the location wasn’t convenient, there seemed to be nothing else available.
Even when graduate students like Ivanova can find affordable living, their rents continue to climb. After rent control was abolished in 1994 by a Massachusetts statewide ballot referendum, prices hiked drastically—and they’re still rising. Between 2015 and 2016, The Crimson reported that the rental rate for single-bedroom apartments in the Cambridge Riverside area increased by 17 percent.
For many graduate students, the rate at which their rent rises outpaces their annual stipend increase—typically a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment based on inflation. This past year, because the endowment underperformed, the stipend increased by only 1.5 percent.
Yesterday, GSAS announced that during the 2018-2019 academic year, stipends will earn a 3 percent increase. That increase was calculated over several months through the annual student financial aid budgeting process. GSAS leadership meets with graduate students and the Graduate Student Council about their needs regularly.
If renting an apartment can be hard, buying a house can be even harder.
Thomas M. Jamison, an International History Ph.D. candidate, decided last year that he wanted to purchase a home with his wife. But they encountered unexpected difficulties. “At first, no one wanted to give me a loan because I was a graduate student with no guaranteed income,” Jamison says.
“That’s one of the bad things about being a grad student,” Jamison reflects. “It’s one of the few jobs where as a young professional with an advanced degree, you’re not in a position to accumulate wealth or invest in a 401k or in the equity of your home.”
Erin M. Hutchinson, a History Ph.D. candidate and union organizer, ushers me into her one-bedroom apartment in Haskins Hall, a Harvard housing complex. It’s cramped at the entrance; I almost knock over a drying rack. But the interior of the apartment is spacious. There’s a living room, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The refrigerator is plastered with stickers and the shelves are well-stocked. She notes there isn’t a dishwasher or disposal.
It costs about $2,000 per month, she tells me. “It’s only affordable because I have a partner that I can share it with,” she explains. (Her boyfriend is a physics graduate student.) It’s visibly home to two academics; the shelves are stacked with books, and I notice “National Ideology Under Socialism” lying on the coffee table. There’s a large record player in the corner.
“We are really happy,” she says. “If you call maintenance, they come the same day or the next day. I’m definitely paying for the quality.”
Harvard currently houses over 7,000 graduate students in University-owned housing and recently added more than 700 graduate beds, according to a 2017 Crimson article. Together, that accounts for about 48 percent of the University’s expanding graduate population of 15,250 and counting.
Housing comes in two main forms: residence halls, which are on-campus dorms, and Harvard University housing, which are apartments that students can rent.
Not all graduate students say they are happy with Harvard housing—often because it can be market price or slightly above.
For the residence halls, students must purchase the meal plan, which is $2,379 per year plus a declining balance allotment of over $650. “I can go to Broadway Market and get a sandwich for $7,” Patrick R. McCoy explains. “It just wasn’t the best financial option.” During the first year of his Celtic Languages and Literature Ph.D., McCoy lived in the dorm Perkins Hall.
The apartments, on the other hand, aren’t subsidized at all, a fact which some graduate students say they find surprising. “[Subsidies are] often the case with university housing everywhere,” says Byron M. Davies, who recently graduated with a philosophy Ph.D. and also organized with the union. “For example, Columbia—because rent in the city is insane—their housing for graduate students is subsidized. Students wouldn’t be able to afford to live there otherwise. Cambridge rents are getting more and more expensive, more and more comparable to something like New York. Why is Harvard not doing that?”
Hall wrote in an email that, “Outside of GSAS, Harvard University Housing offers a wide variety of properties with heat, hot water, electricity, and gas included in the rent. At some locations, air conditioning and/or Internet service are also included. No security deposit, application fee, or finder’s fee are required, and rents are conveniently paid by student term bill.”
Even if students want Harvard housing, some say it is at times available in limited supply. Kadeem J. Gilbert, a graduate student in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology department, wanted to live in University housing during his sixth year. He entered the lottery system, but before his viewing window arrived, he says he received an email saying, “All the housing options were already occupied.”
Now he’s living in a Somerville studio previously occupied by a member of his department. The kitchen and the living area bleed into the bedroom. Most notably, his room is littered with plants. “These aren’t the plants I study,” Gilbert clarifies. He rattles off their names: sea onions, rosemary, aroids, and even a cactus.
Some graduate students felt like they lacked knowledge while they sought out a place to live. “It’s more sink or swim,” Gilbert says.
But there are existing resources available to students. The GSAS has an Office of Residential Life that provides resources for locating off-campus housing and other pertinent information about moving companies and storage facilities. In an emailed statement, Hall wrote that the office staff “assist graduate students who are searching for housing by directing them to resources at Harvard and in the Cambridge-Boston area.”
Jack Nicoludis opens the door to his yellow Somerville home. I am immediately greeted by a black-and-white cat that brushes up against my legs. “That’s Chicken,” Nicoludis says. “He’s friendly. There’s another cat upstairs named Leo—that one’s a little bit more shy.”
We climb an impossibly narrow spiral staircase to reach Nicoludis’s bedroom on the third floor. “Watch out for the railing on your right,” he says. “It’s loose.” His room is essentially an attic; the bed is centered between slanted ceilings, with a tiny fake tree to the left.
After the perilous journey to his bedroom, we return to the second-floor seating area. It’s decorated like a bachelor pad—on a graduate student budget. I sit next to a makeshift bar with different types of alcohol and a sign that says, “So this is a Harvard bar, huh? I thought there’d be equations and shit on the wall.” Nicoludis tells me it’s his favorite quote from “Good Will Hunting.”
“The benefit of living with five people is that it’s cheaper,” Nicoludis says. “We pay $760 a month to $1,100, and I think that’s a bit on the lower range of what people pay.”
For him, this is a pretty ideal living situation. “I’m a pretty social person, so I like having people around and coming home after work to an apartment where we can all hang out in the living room,” he says. “I really enjoy having my roommates be my friends.”
“I don’t know many grad students that live alone,” Nicoludis adds. “I don’t think it’s affordable… The only people I know that live alone have some support from their family… or are living with their partner.”
The Harvard University Housing webpage calls living with peers “a great way to reduce your housing costs”; they even offer an online portal where students can search for roommates.
For some graduate students entering their 30s, however, this style of communal living is one they’ve outgrown since their undergraduate years.
“It doesn’t really work for me personally to have roommates anymore at this point in my life,” Gilbert says. “I’m really clean, I have really particular standards, and I like to work at home.” Though he lived with a roommates for a year, he’s reverted back to living in his own studio—even if it costs more.
Christian B. Schlegel travels to campus from out of state. He sits across from me in a bright rainbow shirt and round glasses. For the first two years of his English Ph.D., he lived in Somerville. As his rent crept from $900 towards $1,000, he began to explore cheaper housing options.
Now, he commutes from Providence, R.I. “It was partly financial and partly just wanting to explore another place,” he explains. The journey to campus is two hours door-to-door, and he makes that trip twice a week. It’s a straight shot on the commuter rail.
Schlegel notes this is made much easier because Harvard subsidizes half the cost of a semesterly MBTA pass. Now, he’s only paying $150 of commuting fees per semester.
In an emailed statement, Hall wrote that GSAS administrators “meet regularly” with the Graduate Student Council, and that the MBTA subsidy came out of conversations with council members. “At one meeting, student leaders asked GSAS to consider increasing the subsidy on MBTA semester passes to 50 percent. GSAS agreed,” she wrote.
Thomas M. Jamison and his wife purchased their home in Waltham.
“One’s housing allowance from the University goes so much farther soon as you just get over the border of Cambridge. The downside of that? My life is run around the vicissitudes of the train system,” he muses. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to run out of a faculty dinner because I have to catch a train.”
Jamison takes the Fitchburg line of the commuter rail from Waltham to Porter Square, and then the red line to Harvard Square. During his very first week, he recalls that his train stopped between Waverly and Belmont for about 30 minutes. Fortunately, his schedule was flexible that day, but he remembered thinking, “Wow, if I had an appointment or a class I just would have missed it.” Now, he says, “I always come an hour or two early so I don’t miss my commitments.”
To avoid being “at the mercy of the commuter rail,” Jamison prefers to bike five miles into Cambridge. “My bike is never late,” he laughs.
Jamison wryly acknowledges the irony of his scheduling difficulties. “Waltham’s biggest industry was forever the clock,” he says. “When I think about the famous Waltham watch company, it’s a bitter irony that the train is always fucking late—I take a little bit of poetic justice from that.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: March 9, 2018
A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that Erin M. Hutchinson lives with her husband. In fact, she lives with her boyfriend; she and her boyfriend are not married.
—Magazine writer Abigail L. Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @asimon_says.